The Scottish Referendum and the Reactivation of Heritage

A few years ago, I read Marta Anico’s essay on representing identities at local municipal museums [1]. In it, she discusses the heritage activation process [2]. Over recent months, while Scotland was in the grip of the referendum campaign, the concept came back to me. Not quite as Anico described it [3] but rather as a reminder of that which is already within us: a re-activation of our heritage values.

In legislation, heritage values effectively express significance of something that is to be protected: usually material, but sometimes intangible. Crucially, it is not so much the value itself that counts. Rather, it is the relationship it has to something else – a building or a definable tradition.

It’s different in ethics. Here, it’s our values that matter on their own account. We may still view them as having a relationship to something else, for example in defining who we are as people. But what concerns us are the values themselves – everything else is a shared by-product of sorts.

The heritage values that were reactivated in me through the Scottish Referendum process are perhaps best described as those ethical values, worth in their own right, that are based on my heritage, understood here as the things that have been passed on to me, that are important to me and that denote me as a member of a specific community of some temporal depth [4]. I’m originally from Germany, and much of what I started to think about – for the first time in the seventeen plus years that I’ve lived outside of Germany – was German, but there were also the things that have made an impact on me in the other places where I’ve lived.

What reactivated these values was the referendum question we were asked to consider: Should Scotland be an independent country? And I started to think of things like the Weimar Republic abolishing the nobility and having a vision of an equal society that thankfully, the Germany I grew up in had – I appreciated that. I thought of the images of the Monday Demonstrations across what was then the German Democratic Republic in 1989 – I felt inspired by those people, and the end-result their actions provided, of a reunified Germany, which today feels truly united. I started to think about the property I interpreted in the US that was related to the War for Independence, and the way that Americans fiercely and proudly related to the underlying values of fair representation, a fair chance for everyone – I never did feel as free as in the US. These, I realised, are my traditions that I believe in and which provide the basis for the values that determined my answer to the referendum question.

The beauty of it was that on the level of these values I was the same as someone whose personal heritage from the outside would have looked completely different to mine. I remember an Asian lady coming to our stall one day, and I was stunned how much this referendum had done to make people recognise what they share, not what makes them different. This was true integration and cohesion. I wish there were a way to hold on to that.

I will mull all of this over for a little while yet, and if anyone has had similar experiences or observations, or if you have any thoughts about this post, I would, as ever, love to hear from you [5].



[1] Anico, M., 2009. ‘Representing identities at local municipal museums: Cultural forums or identity bunkers?’ In: Anico, M. and Peralta, E. (eds), 2009. Heritage and Identity. Engagement and Demission in the Contemporary World. Routledge: London and New York, pp. 63-75

[2] She credits Prats 1997 for this concept, but I’m afraid the original book is in Spanish, and my Spanish just doesn’t cut it.

[3] Anico described it as the promotion of ‘forms of belonging through the creation of local identifying discourses’ (p. 67). I want to go back and re-read this after my recent experience, but from how I remember it this is more of an external process that emphasises creation of identity, rather than the re-activation of something that is already there.

[4] I do think that heritage has something to do with connecting to what was before. Otherwise, it’s (contemporary) culture – which is no less important or meaningful.

[5] On a final note, I want to share with everyone what an amazing, important, life-changing, exhilarating, and empowering experience it was to be part of this referendum. I know from my chats with friends abroad that you will all have heard about the 84% of eligible people who voted. But that does not express the energy and the good will (for the most part) that was out there. For one brief moment, Scotland truldy did hold its fate in its own hands, and everybody knew it and took power. Please do not dismiss either side, and especially not the Yes side that wanted independence – as I have heard many friends in Germany do.  Unity is a great thing – it is the first word of the German National Anthem, and something that is engrained in me too. But German unity is unity of equals. This is not so in the UK. I wish for those that voted No that their hopes will come true. I’m still grappling with my own disappointment, and the sense of uncertainty that now hangs over my future in a country that on a daily basis has discussions that are anti-immigration, and anti-European. Because another thing that I realised during this referendum is that I am, truly, European, and that’s how I like it.


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